Jul 17, 2017

How the Design Community Can be Catalysts for Change

By Emmy Beeson

Years of experience tell me people love their neighborhood schools but think education as a whole needs reformed. It is certainly incumbent upon school leaders to embrace the vision for change and work through the district’s resources (people, time, and budgets) to bring the vision to fruition. But in an industry where acceptance of change is slow and the actual change is even slower, restructuring how we inspire and support school districts through the design, construction, and move-in phases of a building project are critical. It causes me to wonder if it is the design industry — including the suppliers and dealers focused on innovative learning environments — that may be the most powerful catalyst for change in education.

Perhaps “change” is not the right word. Maybe the word should be “transformation.” In the last two decades or so, we have seen reform movement after reform movement: Federal regulations, state regulations, laws, guidance, compliance, compliance, compliance. States all over the country are building more stringent accountability systems and all the while the letter of the law is draining the life out of our schools. Everyone wants students to be engaged and find meaning in their education, but outside influences continue to create circumstances that disengage students. Current state and federal efforts at reform have only served to stymie innovation within education.

The kids in schools today have access to the whole world right at their fingertips because of technology, but most of their school experiences tell them to tone it down a notch and disengage. More standards and more testing does not an education make. In many places, we have lost our purpose, our vision, and our heart. As a practicing superintendent, I can say this with much certainty. However, while our industry has continued to look to legislators and government agencies to reform our schools, it might be the design professionals and the manufacturers and dealers that partner with them, who have more opportunity to influence a transformation of educational practice than any other industry or "reform effort".

Building a new school invokes a moment of dreaming, hoping, envisioning of what is possible for our professional practices and for the experience of students. Schools seeking to build new facilities due to factors such as aging buildings or overcrowding should be presented with this question, “Will you build a new version of an old building or will you construct a facility which mirrors the work, thinking, and collaboration of the ever changing world just outside the schoolhouse walls?” Design experiences for new schools could be the catalyst for the change American schools have been looking.

Transformation can occur if educational leaders seize this opportunity to: 1) work with the design communities who have a greater calling than to erect buildings, but rather to use their unique position as partners to inspire the educational industry and; 2) create not only a facility but a community vision for education that is larger than any formula presented by lawmakers, focused on student engagement and opportunity instead of compliance. As we consider these two beliefs, let’s examine two likely scenarios.

The first scenario is working with a school district which has no vision for how education can and should change. The district needs a new building or buildings due to physical reasons. They have secured the funds to design and build their new school. While the corridors will look nicer, the furniture will be an upgrade from their current building, more daylight and energy-saving features will be incorporated in the building, there has been no real thought into the idea of teaching and learning. Of course the district thinks about teaching and learning, but they do so in a perfunctory way that mimics the idea of “this is the way we have always done it” or “we follow the guidelines laid out by the department of education.”

When asked what their core business is, they will give a standard answer of “educating kids,” but there is no more thought to what that means in 2017 than there was to what that meant in 2000. This district “does school” because that is what they know how to do. The outcomes for kids may be good, they may be bad, but the point is this kind of district has not had an intentional conversation to identify their vision, purpose, or mission as a contributor to their community. In this scenario, it is quite likely that the design professional could be the catalyst for change. The opportunity to construction new facilities, gives the designers the opportunity to shed light on new trends and thinking in education, paint a picture of what is possible, and help schools begin to enter into a dialogue about what they currently believe as compared to what they could believe. Through a variety of engagement activities, envisioning sessions, providing resources and research, and exposing a school district to possibilities, design firms could help districts to break off their shackles of compliance and embrace a deeper vision for education.

The second scenario is in a district where thinking about transformation is already occurring. It is clear that a transformation in school design is underway in many places and educators are beginning to understand the connection between form and function. How much greater would the impact in the world of education be if design professionals, along with their vendor and dealer partners, honed their skills to deliver both educational envisioning sessions and meaningful support in the retooling of schools? Moving from an industrial model of education to one that is student centered and grounded in identifying and developing the passions and personal skills of students is more than helping stakeholders dream big about the potential of teaching and learning.

Dreaming and codifying the dream helps schools to articulate their vision, but building capacity, implementing and sustaining the vision are altogether different phases of the journey. If design professionals could understand that the power of their created facility is in how it will be used after the grand opening, then why not budget for envisioning work that is built on a long-term commitment to support the school district to live out the vision? Instead of minimal time designated for “sit and get” in an envisioning workshop, how can supports be designated over time? How can design firms ask the right essential questions and frame conversations with school leaders to help them commit to a course of action that will result in a transformation of practice over years?

As a school leader who led my district through educational envisioning experiences, deep questioning of what education should be, consideration with stakeholders regarding our core business, the articulation of our newly-discovered beliefs and vision, and now the daily task of learning how to live out who we aspire to be, I can speak to the considerable difference there is between “doing school” and being driven by a vision inspired by community values. We learned how to hear and internalize the values of our community and transform them into 21st century teaching and learning. We learned how to codify our beliefs and build capacity to implement them. We learned how to build structures, process and frameworks to sustain our vision even when personnel change.  And because of our experience with school transformation driven by the design and construction of a new building, I am confident that unprecedented transformation of the education industry can come through teams of professionals focused on designing schools where innovation happens.

However, the model for delivery has to change. Long-term relationships which allow transformation to be supported over time instead of short term design discussions must become the norm. Design professionals and the manufacturers and vendors who partner with them are able to gain entry into education unlike any other group. They work along side as partners, possibility makers, and as such an air of hope and potential enters every conversation vendors and designers have inside a school. The mere presence of an architect, interior designer, or engineer means the power to create exists. If harnessed correctly with a commitment to truly partner with schools over time, the industry can use this power to transform education. Inspiring to create what is good for kids and communities is infinitely more powerful than current reform efforts of forced compliance through state mandated accountability.


Emmy Beeson has been involved in education as a teacher, Central Office Curriculum Director, and Superintendent of Ridgemont Local Schools in Ohio since 2010. She is a co-founder of the Hardin County Design Team bringing schools in her county together in collaborative education, and a participant of the Hardin County Economic Development Committee. She is a member of the nationally-recognized Superintendents Leadership Network from the Schlechty Center for School Reform. On March 20, Emmy was awarded the 2017 Betsy M. Cowles Leadership Award presented by the Buckeye Association of School Administrators. 

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